8. Don’t Look Up
Writer-director-producer Adam McKay seems to have found a sweet spot in the Academy’s defences against comedy films making their annual lists of Best Picture nominees, his latest – Netflix’s Don’t Look Up starring academy favourites Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett – being the filmmaker’s 2nd Best Picture nominee (following Vice in 2019) in just four ceremonies.
A very on-the-nose allegory for global warming – or is that the Coronavirus pandemic, or the dissolution of global politics in the post-Trump era – Don’t Look Up is hardly subtle in its parodying of politics, big business, the cult of personality surrounding celebrity culture, and the growth of anti-information, but in all of its obviousness lies a truth about western society and particularly American culture that speaks of a collective desire for excess and controversy.
Perhaps the best filmmaking element of Don’t Look Up, which in general features some cartoonish CGI and some reductive character stereotypes that do little to elevate the purpose of the piece, is the pacing. McKay and crew make Don’t Look Up feel as immediate and necessary as DiCaprio and Lawrence’s characters believe the end of the world to be, and they do so with some of McKay’s rapid dialogue, documentarian editing style, rising debates and conflicts, and a frighteningly accurate takedown of societal customs we’ve come to accept as the norm.
Don’t Look Up is hardly as enlightening and as sharp as it thinks itself to be, nor as deconstructive and powerful as documentaries on similar topics (namely those by Adam Curtis, such as Bitter Lake), but it did stir conversation upon its release and it does offer something worthwhile and meaningful to current socio-political discussion, thus being a Best Picture nominee that is easy to comprehend even if none of its individual aspects (in front of the camera or behind it) can be considered Best of Class.
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Dune director Denis Villeneuve has solidified himself as a favourite of the Academy in recent years, his detailed and specific blockbuster offerings holding more in common with the thrillers of Michael Mann and slow-building work of David Lean than typical studio fare or even the more palatable mainstream auteur cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, his efforts bringing strong filmmaking technique and philosophy into the big budget realm in a manner arguably as important as the work of Christopher Nolan in the past decade. For this reason, Dune’s inclusion in The Academy’s list of Best Picture nominees is deserved.
An unsurprising Best Picture nominee in many ways – it is an adaptation of a famous novel, an unfilmable novel no less, and features allegories for real world socio-political issues – Dune remains in some ways an outlier in terms of usual Academy choices in that it is a big budget blockbuster and a genre piece at that (action and sci-fi are rarely celebrated at the Academy Awards). Much of this is due to the films pacing and Villeneuve’s unmovable filmmaking techniques that ground each of his pieces in a truly human, very precise and measured (particularly in terms of tension) place.
Dune is, however, restricted by some of what makes it such a unique cinematic offering, its very existence as a product of adaptation making it an incomplete story, and its need to make studio Warner Bros money at the box office driving it in many ways: even with Villeneuve at the helm, there are a lot of moments in which action elements are ramped up at the behest of filmmaking strategy. It is also, arguably, more impressive to those who know of the glorious failures felt by David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky in their attempts to adapt the source material than it is to those judging the film as its own standalone piece, but generally it is roundly accepted that this is an outstanding high budget science fiction offering from a filmmaker looking to push the limits of the form and challenge the conventions set in place by a restrictive studio system; a film that represents, at least visually, the very reason people go to the cinema: the spectacle.
6. King Richard
In decades past, King Richard would be a shoe-in for the Best Picture: a Hollywood star who has struggled to transition from blockbusters to critical acclaim has finally found the role that could land him the Best Actor Oscar; a based on true events story about some of the world’s most highly respected and important athletes; a socially conscious portrayal of racial inequality; and all presented within a typical Hollywood tale of hard work equalling American Exceptionalism. The Academy really loves a “work hard get rich” story.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film seems to be centred on the wrong Williams (Richard instead of sisters Venus and Serena), and a lot can be written about how damaging it is to do so when presenting the journeys of two of the world’s most important woman athletes. The director’s avoidance of offering critique towards pushy parenting or the US’s testing sporting environments of over-competitiveness leaves his film lacking in important questions too, but as a sports movie it truly excels.
King Richard successfully presents a believable family dynamic and holds a weight that those oppressed through matters of race and class will be able to identify with. Furthermore, it gets a lot of the sporting aspects right; the Williams sisters looking as impressive on the court in the film as they did in real-life at the same ages, the wide range of other tennis players performing live-action and to a high level, thus making every tennis match believable. It also has some standout acting in a number of well written scenes. All in all, it’s probably the best sports drama of the past five years.
More concise and unobjectionable than Dune but less emphatic, layered and detailed than the Best Picture nominees to come in this edition of Ranked, King Richard will be a well-remembered sports movie but is unlikely to be remembered amongst great Best Picture winners and nominees like Parasite and The Godfather.